Many Canadians feel that the CBC/Radio Canada is a national icon. Some want to keep it, others argue that it is past its due date, meaning that under current conditions affecting the media it is no longer needed. Wade Rowland, author of Canada Lives Here, The Case for Public Broadcasting (Leith Publishing 2015) is an articulate supporter of the CBC. I have my doubts for the following reasons.
Evolution of public broadcasting
Public broadcasting came into being with the birth of radio. The BBC, set up in 1922, is often considered the original role model for public broadcasting, with John, later Lord Reith, its first Director General. Initially, it had few competitors and was funded by a grant from the government. Radio and later on television programming was distributed by the BBC.
Over time, commercial radio and television evolved financed by advertising, and the means of producing and distributing content exploded. Today audiences receive programming, financed by advertising, from many sources using a variety of means such as cable, satellite, and the internet. With the use of recording devices, they can store and watch programming at their convenience, and by fast forwarding through advertising.
Despite these changes, some still argue the need for a public broadcaster. For example, Rowland writes “…the CBC must broaden public taste, rather than pander to it – to provide a venue for excellence. Success is, or ought to be measured in that context (p.96).” This is like saying one should undertake regular exercise. The opportunity always exists but there is no way of enforcing it.
Public broadcasting began with radio and spread to television. At the same time commercial broadcasting grew, and the choices for listeners and viewers multiplied creating competition for public broadcasters, which experienced declining audience shares. The CRTC annual monitoring report (available online) shows the CBC’s share of the English language TV market fell from 13.2% in 1994 to 7.5% in 2000 and to 5.5% in 2013. The long run trend is clear. (Figures for the French language TV market show a lesser decline).
CBC supporters will argue that inadequate public funding and the quality of CBC senior management are responsible. An alternative view is that, at least in some market segments, the case for public support is weakened or no longer exists. People cannot be forced to watch certain programs even if some think it would be good for them.
There are a variety of Canadian statistics to view. Radio audiences behave differently from TV audiences, and French and English language audiences show different trends over time. Part of this has to do with the availability of alternative programming which, largely due to technology, has increased.
Broadcasting has been financed by the state, by advertising and by other commercial activities, or by some combination of these. Factoring this in with changing technology helps to explain how individual broadcast undertakings behave.
In the UK, the BBC is a public broadcaster with a commercial arm. It is not permitted to carry advertising or sponsorship on its public services. This keeps it independent of commercial interests and ensures it can be run purely to serve the general public interest (somehow defined).
The BBC is financed instead by a TV licence fee paid by households. This guarantees that a wide range of high-quality programmes can be made available, unrestricted, to everyone. The BBC runs additional commercial services around the world. These are not financed by the licence fee but are kept quite separate from the BBC’s public services. (from the BBC website).
About one quarter of the BBC’s total revenues come from commercial services and the remainder from licence fees.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is funded by a grant from the government, with some commercial revenues from shops which it owns. Like other public broadcasters it has been criticized by political parties (of all stripes) for its news and commentary coverage. The ABC receives little criticism from commercial broadcasters because it does not compete with them for advertising.
The CBC is funded by a combination of government grant and advertising revenues. The latter puts it in competition with private broadcasters. For example, the TV rights to popular hockey and other sports programs can be bought using taxpayers money in competition with private broadcasters, and then advertising can be sold. (Recently Rogers outbid the CBC for hockey programs which caused a substantial drop in the CBC’s advertising revenues.)
In 2014-15, the CBC received about $1bn in government funding and $600m in commercial revenue including $333m in advertising (CBC Annual Report). Not included are funds from agencies like Telefilm Canada, which support the production of programs in Canada. Overall the CBC receives more than $1bn annually from the public purse.
In a short piece, it is not possible to make a detailed argument concerning the need for and financing of public broadcasting in Canada. The following two points I think are noteworthy:
- It was a mistake to fund Canadian public broadcasting through a combination of government grant and advertising, as it puts public and commercial broadcasting in competition with each other. The BBC and ABC have avoided this conflict.
- The explosion of communications technology has meant that audiences now have access to all types of content, including that distributed by public broadcasters. There is no way public broadcasting can survive (retain audiences) unless they can compete with what is available elsewhere.
For those interested in media history, the following may be of interest:
Lord Reith, often considered the founding father of public broadcasting, was a stern and dictatorial figure.
For all his outward pretence of stern morality, he was in fact a hypocrite, according to his own daughter, Marista Leishman, who has written a book about him. Publicly, she says, he abhorred infidelity; but privately, he enjoyed relationships with a series of malleable young women – and once, while in his 20s, even had an intimate liaison with a man.